The Band came to London for the first time in the early summer of 1971. At 2.30pm on Monday, May 17 a handful of us gathered at the Inn on the Park, near Hyde Park Corner, where EMI Records had booked the Hamilton Suite, rooms 206-210, for Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson to meet journalists. I talked to Robertson and Danko for a feature that appeared in the next week’s Melody Maker, a few days ahead of their two dates at the Albert Hall on June 2 and 3.
They were enjoyable interviews. Robbie talked about the early days with Ronnie Hawkins, and about their influences. Among the names he mentioned were those of Jimmy Reed, Charlie Rich, Sanford Clark and Billie Lee Riley, which reminded him of his first visit to London, along with Rick, Garth and Richard, for Bob Dylan’s Albert Hall shows in 1966, when they stayed at the Savoy.
“A bunch of people came by the hotel,” he said, “a bunch of rough-looking characters. I don’t know what you’d call them, but they were into pure rock ‘n’ roll. They didn’t like Bob’s music at all. They were into Ronnie Hawkins, and they were giving me this whole story about giving up this Bob Dylan shit and getting back to the real meat of things. They were very sincere, actually. What do you call them? Do you have a name for them?”
“Rockers,” I said.
“Rockers? I told Ronnie about them. I mean, they had people named after his songs, even.”
“Wild Little Willie?”
“Yeah, that was one of the guys. Are they still around?”
They were indeed, a bunch of superannuated Teddy Boys still trying to convince the world that any rock ‘n’ roll that sounded as though it had been made after Elvis went into the army wasn’t worth a teaspoon of oil for a Triumph Bonneville. I happened to know that Wild Little Willie was one of the leading members of their coterie, named after one of Hawkins’s best known songs.
Talking to Danko, I asked why their performance at Woodstock two years earlier hadn’t been included in the subsequent movie. “I just didn’t feel that their sound was together,” he said, “and I didn’t believe it was the sort of film that I’d want to look at myself in 20 years’ time, because I’m sure all that comes back, at one time or another. It was not our PA system. We were using other people’s facilities, which means that we didn’t have any control over it, and if you can’t control it then I don’t consider the people are getting their money’s worth. The Isle of Wight impressed me in 1969. The people there were very orderly. I thought it was like being in a giant high-school gymnasium. But it’s hard. We limit our PA system, like you do in a studio, which cleans it up for the people, so it sounds more like a record.”
They hadn’t brought their own system to Europe, relying instead on a system supplied by Charlie Watkins, the South London amplification expert and inventor of the great Copicat tape-echo unit. According to Danko, Watkins had been to see them in the US, examined their system, and promised to create something equally effective.
He was as good as his word, and those of us present at the Albert Hall still talk about the pin-sharp but very warm quality of the sound, and how they were the first rock band to master the acoustics of a venue that had been notoriously unfriendly to amplified music. As Danko promised, the sound was just like the records, allowing us to appreciate the astonishing quality of their playing. It was one of the great gigs, and three of the songs from the first night — “Strawberry Wine”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Look Out, Cleveland” — were unearthed for A Musical History, the handsome boxed set released by Capitol in 2005. Which must mean that the rest of the concert is in the vault somewhere, and it would be nice to hear it all one day.
After finishing their European dates they spent the remainder of 1971 finishing and releasing their fourth album, Cahoots, and touring the US, winding up the year with four nights at the Academy of Music in New York, where they were augmented by a five-piece horn section under the direction of the New Orleans master Allen Toussaint. Those shows were initially commemorated in Rock of Ages, a vinyl double album released the following year. Now Robbie Robertson has gone back to the archive, unearthed the original master tapes, remixed and remastered them, and put together a new boxed set including three CDs and a DVD, plus a more modest two-CD package.
The latter, for which I opted, includes the Band’s full 25-song set — eight more than could be squeezed on to the two vinyl discs of the original release, and two more (“Smoke Signal” and “Strawberry Wine”) than appeared on the last CD version, plus four songs with Dylan — “Down in the Flood”, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, “Don’t Ta Tell Henry” and “Like a Rolling Stone”, all of which appeared on the earlier expanded CD release.
They sound better than ever, and they sounded pretty good in the first place. It reminds me of the extraordinary finesse and flexibility that became apparent during the Albert Hall concert, not least when — as you see them in the photograph above — Levon picked up a mandolin, Garth strapped on an accordion and Richard settled himself behind that beautiful old-fashioned drum kit. Back at his Lowrey organ, Garth played an astonishing extended solo introduction to “Chest Fever”, known as “The Genetic Method”; a friend of mine claims he played it on the Albert Hall’s mighty pipe organ, but that’s not my memory of it.
Everything about that concert was perfect, except for the interval, when I went for a drink and found myself accosted at the bar by Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s manager and a master of the art of intimidation, who approached me, with Jimmy Page lurking in his shadow, and accused me of trying to break up his band. That’s another story, but it was a relief to get back to my seat and listen to some more from the greatest combo of their era, functioning at their peak.
* The photograph is taken from the insert to The Band: Live at the Academy of Music 1971. It is uncredited.